While traveling the highways and byways of Virginia it would never be a great surprise to come across a monument or memorial commemorating a battle or hero of the Civil War. Or even the Revolutionary War. More surprising, however, is a National Monument tucked in the hills and alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway in honor of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy during World War II. What, you might ask yourself, is the connection to this remote area of the United States and the largest planned amphibious assault in the history of the WORLD?
Before I answer that, I must tell you what brought us to this incredible spot. While perusing travel brochures and plotting our route and itinerary as to what we should see and do while visiting the area, what should pop up but the National D-Day Memorial. My dad had served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, so I already had a soft spot in my heart for those who fought in the war. I knew they were all tough guys – I mean, they wouldn’t get the moniker “the greatest generation” without being a bunch of bad asses, right?! So, I added this stop to our list and what I initially believed would be a diversion, in the midst of potential Civil and Revolutionary War information overload, ended up being a highlight!
Upon arrival at the memorial you must first stop at the Bedford Welcome Center at the bottom of the hill to purchase tickets. The ticket includes an approximate hour-long guided tour and by all means, TAKE the TOUR! Our tour guide was a wealth of information about the memorial, the D-Day invasion and the war itself. His passion for the subject was evident and his pride palpable. Covering 50 acres, the guided tour is ideal in strategically leading you through the park in an order that explains the events leading up to and on this historic day in our country’s history.
Your guided tour first takes you into gardens surrounding the memorial with bronzed statues that answer the question … WHY Bedford? Today the population of Bedford is around 6,000 people and during World War II the population was right at 3,000. On June 6, 1944 the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France included 34 soldiers from Bedford, Virginia.
Most of these young men were not yet twenty years old. They each carried eighty pounds of equipment while attempting to cross more than 200 yards of sand to reach their first opportunity at protection – all while enduring a maelstrom of gunfire and explosions. Referred to as “the Bedford Boys”, of the 34 that hit the beach that fateful day – 19 were killed during the onslaught and 4 died later. Bedford, Virginia suffered the greatest loss, per capita, of any place in the United States – earning today’s location of The National D–Day Memorial. (And that’s WHY!)
The bronzed statues in this area commemorate these boys who were part of the campaign which included three sets of brothers from the town. The book “The Bedford Boys” by Alex Kershaw describes the events in detail and was partial inspiration for the movie “Saving Private Ryan”. Director Steven Spielberg helped fund the memorial that opened to the public on June 6, 2001 and was dedicated by then President, George W. Bush.
The next area you encounter during the tour includes interesting descriptions of the effort’s various generals, as well as accounts of the planning and coordinating of the Allied Forces that struck the five beaches of Normandy. The highlight of these gardens is the bronzed statue of Supreme Commanding General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Situated in a garden structure known as a “folly” – the statue of Eisenhower commands this place of honor.
Eisenhower’s posture and stance in the sculpture is engaging and appears nonchalant. It was actually sculpted from a photograph taken on June 5th – the day before the invasion – while conversing with his young soldiers before sending them into the battle. Reportedly deeply concerned for their welfare and realizing the probable outcome of their upcoming and seemingly impossible endeavor, Eisenhower wished to put the “boys” at ease as much as possible. Their conversation? They were talking about fishing.
The Allied Forces perpetrating the beach attack consisted of the United States, Great Britain, Canada and France. The U.S. forces attacked the beaches of Omaha and Utah. (Britain attacked Gold and Sword Beaches and Canada attacked Juno Beach.) The climax of the memorial tour is the startling representation of the assault on Omaha Beach. The monument is designed to look like the beach head encountered on that day and actual sand from Omaha beach was mixed in with the concrete to further memorialize the experience.
The marble statue of the amphibious assault craft is the size of those that landed on Omaha Beach. It is situated so that you can walk on board for a realistic point of view as to the overall scope of the distances and heights representative of the approach. Looking forward from this vantage point is the exact distance to the beach required to cover, in order to reach some sort of protection. The bridge that crosses over the top of the memorial is the exact height of the fortified bluffs from where the German soldiers attacked.
Snarling, sharp, iron obstructions were placed in the water by the Germans in hopes of tearing out the bottoms of the approaching watercraft. While the U.S. troops were known to normally attack during the day and in good weather, this surprise morning assault was in a drizzling rain and at low tide – exposing the German obstacles and providing an advantage for the Americans, so desperately needed.
While the Allied forces might have been afforded these momentary advantages, the German snipers were fortified in their shoreline bunkers and beyond, hidden by incredible tangles of thicket and root systems called “bocage” that appeared to be impenetrable. In the spirit of true western ingenuity, this same scrap iron the German’s used as beach defense was fashioned into giant “teeth” and attached to Sherman tanks they called “Rhinos” that slashed and sliced right through the stubborn “bocage”, furthering the victory of the Americans.
Finally the tour leads you over the bridge to an arch shrine emblazoned with the words: OVERLORD. This term memorializes the military code name for the attack known as “Operation Overlord”. Overlord was the largest air, land and sea operation in history utilizing 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes and 150,000 servicemen. The success of the mission resulted in turning the tide – so desperately needed to ultimately reign victorious over the Axis countries and end World War II. The imposing marble arch is 44.6 feet tall in honor of the date June 6, 1944 and is a memorial to the D-Day Veterans and all Allied forces involved in this momentous historical event.
After the tour be sure to explore more of the area on your own. There are loads of interpretive signs and inscriptions to read and a Gold Star Family Memorial Garden with a monument saluting the families who have sacrificed loved ones for our freedom. The souvenir shop is filled with items and books about World War II, D-Day, Operation Overlord and more.
So are you feeling a little proud? The National D-Day Memorial will surely make you feel that way – be sure to add it to your list of things “to do” the next time you visit Virginia! Contact Info: National D-Day Memorial / 3 Overlord Circle, Bedford VA 24523 / 540 586-3329 / www.dday.org
Have you ever visited the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia? Let us know how you liked it in the comments below.